After Harvard Hillel drops event due to donor pressure, progressive Jewish org calls out ‘political litmus test’

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
on 13 Comments

Last Thursday, the Harvard Crimson reported that the Harvard Hillel had dropped an event organized by Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) because the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) was listed as a co-sponsor. The event “Jewish Voices against the Israeli Occupation” was to feature Israeli Jew Noam Lekach and American Jew Jeff Stein discussing activism in Israel/Palestine. Hillel cancelled the event saying that the PSC’s co-sponsorship conflicted with Hillel International guidelines which states that Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

In response, PJA has issued the following open letter to the Hillel Community:

Dear Hillel Community,

We, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), are writing to inform you of something deeply troubling that happened recently. Several weeks ago, PJA—a Hillel affiliated group—began working with the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) to plan a speaker event, “Jewish Voices Against the Israeli Occupation.” As two campus organizations that both work for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine, PJA and PSC often co-sponsor events. We planned to bring an Israeli Jew and an American Jew to talk about their work doing non-violent activism against the Israeli occupation, such as peaceful protests against the demolition of Palestinian homes. The speakers would also discuss how Jewish students going on Birthright could extend their stays in order to visit the West Bank in addition to Israel on their trip. Since this event is explicitly Jewish in nature and directed mainly at Jewish students, we believed that Hillel would be the ideal location for the event.

Initially, Jonah Steinberg (Hillel’s executive director) approved this event and told us that we could hold it in the Hillel building. We believed, after this first conversation, that Jonah had understood that PJA and PSC would be co-sponsoring the event, although we later learned that he had not. Once we put out advertisements for the event, Jonah began receiving complaints about this co-sponsorship, and he expressed uncertainty to us about whether this event could in fact be held in Hillel. Hillel International’s standards of partnership declare that “Hillel will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers that… support boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions [BDS] against the State of Israel,” which PSC does. After major donors threatened to withdraw their money from Harvard Hillel, Jonah informed us that the event could no longer take place in the Hillel building.

We are disturbed and saddened by this decision to remove our event from Hillel. As progressive Jews working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, we believe that collaboration with Palestinian groups is essential.  We see such cooperation as a step on the path to peace, and we are disappointed that even when Palestinian groups reach out to partner with us, their overtures are rejected by our Jewish community.

The BDS movement is the largest non-violent campaign protesting the injustices of the Israeli occupation. Although we may have disagreements with this movement, we believe it is essential to find common ground and collaborate where we can. Completely shutting out any groups that advocate for BDS cuts off a huge portion of the population that cares about Israel/Palestine, including almost every Palestinian student group across the country. Excluding these ideas from the Hillel building does not make them disappear, but serves only to prevent productive dialogue and alienate people from Hillel. Jewish people who care about peace must frame our disagreements respectfully, allowing for discussion and thoughtful exchange of ideas, instead of putting up barriers to cooperation with others who seek peace.

Hillel International’s policy also excludes some Jews and Jewish groups from Hillel. For example, the Brandeis chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, which advocates for divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation, was recently prevented from affiliating with Brandeis Hillel. We are disturbed to see progressive Jews excluded from Hillels for their political views. Although PJA is not currently in this situation, we feel less welcome and included in a community that sets a political litmus test to determine which Jewish students and groups will be allowed in. Such a community is not one that reflects our Jewish values of social justice and vigorous debate.

Within the Jewish community, boycott calls are becoming more mainstream. Peter Beinart, a well-known liberal Zionist who spoke at Harvard Hillel last spring, recently called for Jews who care about Israel to boycott the settlements as a protest against Israel’s continued expansion into Palestinian territory and the unequal treatment of Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. Many progressive Jews agree with his position, yet Hillel International’s policies would exclude these voices from its Jewish community. If Hillel truly wants to be “the foundation for Jewish campus life,” it must represent and support all of the diverse views held by Jewish people.

Universities should promote open discussion, critical thinking, and debate, and Hillel should similarly uphold these values—values essential to a democratic society. This, of course, does not mean that Hillel needs to provide space for the expression of racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful views. However, Hillel must not fall prey to the common fallacy that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. BDS is not an irrational, hate-based ideology—rather, it is a political position that can, and should, be discussed and debated.

Finally, we strongly object to the idea that outside organizations and donors can step in to prevent student-initiated programming in Hillel whenever they disagree with it. Hillel is, and should be, a student-driven community, and students ought to play the primary role in determining its policies and programming. Jonah wrote that Hillel’s Israel policy should be determined by “students, Board of Directors members, and stakeholders.” We wonder who these “stakeholders” are, and why they are given influence over Hillel’s policies equal to that of students. If students’ programming can only go forth according to the whims of Hillel’s donors, Hillel will quickly cease to be a meaningful center for Jewish student life.

In response to these recent events, we conclude that Hillel should have no policy on the political affiliation of groups, organizations, and speakers that it partners with, houses, and hosts. We ask that Hillel International remove its guidelines for Standards of Partnership for campus Israel activities, which currently work to exclude groups and individuals with particular political views from campus Hillels. Regardless of the actions taken by Hillel International, we believe that Harvard Hillel should not establish policies that put in place a political test for its co-sponsorships or affiliated groups. Rather, we hope that Harvard Hillel will lead the push for more inclusive policies on a national level.

PJA and PSC will still be holding the “Jewish Voices Against the Occupation” event—now in Emerson Hall 305 at 7:30pm this Thursday. We invite students from Hillel to attend and to talk to members of PSC, so that Hillel’s current restrictions will not stand in the way of dialogue between Jews and Palestinians on campus.

Most of all, we hope that a broad coalition of Hillel students of all political affiliations can come together in support of more open and inclusive policies. If you have any questions or concerns, members of PJA will be in the Hillel dining hall from 5-7 pm tonight, tomorrow, and Wednesday, and would be happy to talk to you. You can also contact Emily, the chair of PJA, at [email protected] to bring up any thoughts or to find a time to talk about this in person.  

With hope for a more peaceful and inclusive future,
The Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance
Emily Unger
Rachel Sandalow-Ash
Sandra Korn
Eva Roben
Sasha Johnson-Freyd
Elena Hoffenberg
Joshua Blecher-Cohen
Ann Finkel
Virginia Marshall

13 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    November 13, 2012, 10:36 am

    hillel follows reut’s ‘red lines’ rules. it’s a top down org.

    link to reut-institute.org

    they call it a ‘broad’ tent, but it isn’t. this link is actually very amusing. they use orwellian language like “we needed to increase the band-width of tolerance for criticism of Israel’s policies in order to win the fight” and “delineating such red-lines must be a grass-roots community based” but mean the opposite. as you work your way down the page they spill the beans:

    What are the red-lines? – Reut believes that establishing ‘red lines’ is essential and complementary to the ‘broad tent’ approach, but also that such lines must be delineated based on a community-wide deliberation. Hence, Reut has repeatedly refused to partake in this debate, except for the following:
    - The minimal threshold for entry to the ‘tent’ is supporting the right of the State of Israel to exist and of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination based on the principle of two-states-for-two-people; working to offer a single context for understanding Israel’s actions; giving Israel the benefit of doubt; and the elusive criteria of ‘love’ or, at least, ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ for Israel;

    - Guilt by association: The BDS movement is a delegitimizing movement, and therefore acts of BDS within this movement are unacceptable.

  2. marc b.
    November 13, 2012, 11:03 am

    Hillel cancelled the event saying that the PSC’s co-sponsorship conflicted with Hillel International guidelines which states that Hillel organizations “will not partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

    so hillel is boycotting all events which ‘partner’ with persons who support BDS, because hillel objects to the use of boycotts.

    • southernobserver
      November 13, 2012, 10:38 pm

      This is one of the most striking insights; that boycott is their very first reaction to any thinking that they don’t agree with, but must not be used in return.

      I am sure that they would be pleased be demonstrating a key Christian parable as part of interfaith initiatives: “cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye”

  3. Cliff
    November 13, 2012, 11:30 am

    Hillel objects to boycotts against apartheid, colonialism and war crimes so long as they are carried out by Israel.

    If they are committed by Syria, Libya, Darfur, blah blah (and don’t harm Zionist interests in a meaningful way) then they are all for it.

    They of course care insofar as those other conflicts can serve as rhetorical and political assists for Zionism.

    Cue the JSF 3-step program to defending Israel online!

  4. Keith
    November 13, 2012, 11:35 am

    “After major donors threatened to withdraw their money from Harvard Hillel, Jonah informed us that the event could no longer take place in the Hillel building.”

    Yet another example of the synergistic relationship between organized American Jews and Zionism.

  5. pabelmont
    November 13, 2012, 11:41 am

    Hillel Int’l probably doesn’t approve of intermarriage either. They don’t want to be a home for Jews: they want to define “who’s a good Jew”. HI: Good Jews don’t talk to Palestinians or oppose settlements, etc. If McCarthy had never lived, HI would have invented him. Beware DONORS! Big-Money always seems to come from ostriches.

    Gag.

  6. Dan Crowther
    November 13, 2012, 2:48 pm

    What’s Hillel?

    The harvards’s and hillels of the world are meaningless. no one should pay any attention to those cats.

  7. ToivoS
    November 13, 2012, 3:46 pm

    I have been on a variety of campuses since the early 60s. There was a time when Hillel seemed to be integrated with the whole campus community. I recall events at Hillel where conservative, moderate, progressive and radical students interacted. In those days there was a near consensus supporting Israel tempered with some sympathy for the Palestinians. Today Hillel feels like they have walled themselves off from the rest of the campus. I have very little sense of their interaction with the larger community. These anecdotes are symptoms of their general withdrawal into a bubble.

  8. DICKERSON3870
    November 13, 2012, 3:51 pm

    RE: “Last Thursday, the Harvard Crimson reported that the Harvard Hillel had dropped an event organized by Harvard’s Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) because the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) was listed as a co-sponsor . . .” ~ Adam Horowitz

    ALSO SEE: “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics”, by David Theo Goldberg & Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

    [EXCERPT]. . . It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than thirty-three distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The coalition is an overwhelmingly powerful presence on American college campuses for which there is simply no equivalent on the Palestinian or Arab side. Its self-proclaimed mission is not merely to monitor our colleges and universities. That, after all, is the commitment of Campus Watch, which was started by pro-Israel activists in 2002. It is, rather (and in its own words), to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.”
    There is, accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for — and even less interest in — the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process. Insinuation, accusation, and defamation have become the weapons of first resort to respond to argument and criticism directed at Israeli policies. As far as these outside pressure groups (and their campus representatives) are concerned, the intellectual and academic price that the scholarly community pays as a result of this kind of intervention amounts to little more than collateral damage. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to tikkun.org

    P.S. “FREE DON” SIEGELMAN PETITION – link to change.org

  9. Nevada Ned
    November 13, 2012, 4:59 pm

    I think it’s great that progressive Jewish groups and Palestinian solidarity activists are working together on behalf of the wretched Palestinians. And if Hillel doesn’t like it, that’s just too bad. Hillel’s objection is just proof that the fledgling coalition has the Establishment worried.

  10. Abdul-Rahman
    November 13, 2012, 6:36 pm

    Isn’t Hillel strongly affiliated with the “ADL”? I’ve even heard Hillel referred to as the student arm of the “ADL” in the past. If that is so, it is no surprise to see the censorship and pathetic tactics Hillel has resorted to, as the “ADL” is a disreputable organization based on smearing anyone they perceive as not kneeling in subservience to Israel; along with the “ADL”s demonstrated history of spying on Leftist groups in particular! Along with the “ADL”s soft spot for Islamophobia (while claiming to oppose all bigotry), such as when the “ADL” joined with open bigots who tried to work against the Mosque in Lower Manhattan (which even led to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria to return an “ADL” award he had been given in the past).

  11. Les
    November 13, 2012, 6:57 pm

    I am still anxious to hear at least one name of any supporter of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians who is not a racist. Can anyone connected with Harvard’s Hillel give us the name of said person?

  12. Rusty Pipes
    November 13, 2012, 7:32 pm

    Unfortunately, even Hillel directors who want to offer a variety of programs and perspectives for Jewish students face severe restrictions from some of their funding sources. It’s not just individual large donors. Some of the apparently generic Jewish funding orgs have well-defined Zionist strings attached. For example, the SF Jewish Federation receives donations from a wide variety of Jewish donors. However, its board has decided that it will not fund Jewish organizations that co-sponsor events with “delegitimizers” that support BDS. Even though many of the Federation’s donors would support it giving money to groups that discuss a variety of issues, including BDS, any Hillel that co-sponsored such an event would see its funding slashed by the Federation (and campus hasbarists would ensure that that fact was brought to the Federation’s attention). When those funds are slashed, Hillel has to lay off staff and cut its program, unless there are other funders in the community who step up in an emergency. Since national Hillel adopted its stance of not co-sponsoring with BDS supporters, any Hillel director who did so would also endanger ties with the national org and any support or networking it provides.

    While recognizing that Hillel’s options are constrained by its funding, it’s important that students who are seeking to raise human rights issues do not allow their programming choices to be constrained by whether or not Hillel will participate in them.

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